Battle for the Fanboy: Comics Retailers, Publishers Will Meet in Dallas in February to Discuss the Future of Their Business

Yesterday, the Comics Professional Retail Organization -- which is the trade organization for comic-book retailers -- announced that for the first time in its history, it's meeting in Dallas in February, at the Doubletree near the Galleria. At stake, say organizers, is the very future of the brick-and-mortar comic book shop, which has seen major publishers, chief among them DC and Marvel, move their racks to the digital domain while, at the same time, jacking up (or lowering, depending upon your perspective) the price of comics to three and four dollars an issue.

Among those scheduled to attend: DC co-publishers and creators Dan DiDio and Jim Lee and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane, who may be better known these days as a toy-maker. But, reminds Amanda Emmert, ComicsPRO's treasurer, "this isn't a fan convention -- this is the top retailers and top publishers getting together to sit down and talk about the future of the industry." On the to-discuss list, she says: figuring out how to "bring retailers into the publishers' digital initiatives" and DC's plan to lower cover prices to $2.99, which Marvel's sort of copying.

Exactly 10 years ago I wrote a cover story for the paper version of Unfair Park on this very subject -- the dying comics industry. The comic book appeared to be a vestige of a pulpy past; said my fellow Daily Texan Chris Ware, "I don't expect this business to survive at all, actually." In 2002, Jeremy Shorr, owner of Titan Comics across Northwest Highway from Bachman Lake, noted the dwindling ranks of area retailers -- from maybe 35 in 1991 to closer to 15 a decade later. (Most local retailers say that's about right today -- if you count Denton, Tarrant and Collin counties.) But that was before mighty Marvel got in bed with Disney, Chris Nolan put on the Batsuit, Borders and Barnes & Noble set up "graphic novel" sections, and Ryan Reynolds turned a brighter shade of Green Lantern.

Still, the Big Question remains: Will comics publishers put comics retailers out of business? I asked Shorr yesterday whether the February meeting in Dallas will do much to answer it. He responded by saying he'd long ago dropped out of ComicsPRO; so too several other "activist owners," as he calls them, who felt their $300-plus in annual membership dues were going to waste.

"In my opinion, that's pipe dream land," he says of the digital discussion. "Marvel and DC are going to cut me in for a piece of the pie? Why? What's in it for them?" Of the pricing wars, he says: "That's the horse out of the burning barn." And of McFarlane's appearance in Dallas, Shorr says: "What's he going to talk about -- how cool his hockey cards are?"

Shorr says maybe I ought to talk to one of the local retailers who's on board with ComicsPRO -- like, say, Chris Powell, general manager at Lone Star Comics, who actually used to sit on the board and was, till August, president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.  And, indeed, Powell's very optimistic about the February meeting -- he's even in the process of arranging on the publishers' behalf a tour of local shops, including Shorr's. He's also asked ComicsPRO's Emmert to reach out to Shorr to see if he'd at least show up to the one meeting taking place in his backyard.

"But there are a lot of retailers like Jeremy -- those who own comics stores because they aren't big 'Go Team!' kinda guys and want to do their own thing," Powell says. "Different voices make a stronger organization. To the people on the fence I would say: If you show up to a meeting like this and expect them to have something to present to you, I see that as a step backward. I don't want my business partners to come to me with a fait accompli. The dirty secret is -- and it's not much of a secret -- nobody's making money on digital comics, and some of the publishers are finally going, 'Oh, we're not making any money on this,' But they put so much energy into it because it's new and shiny, and now they realize it has to be something that compliments brick-and-mortals because they're only surviving because of us."

Fact is, says Powell, the only comic stores that'll be around in a few years are those who don't carry a lot of, ya know, comics. He says Lone Star's only been "60 percent comics" since it first opened its doors some three decades ago -- when it counted among its merch, oh, D&D dice and other freaks-n-geeks paraphernalia. "All the oddball stuff," as he puts it. And a store like Zeus Comics, he points out, "does well with toys and collectibles."

"Stores that rely on print comics for anything over 70 percent of their business -- new comics, that is, not back issues -- may struggle," he says. Places like Lone Star and Titan do well in the old-copies business, selling their back issues online and via eBay. "That's because people don't know where to find a back issue of Green Lantern," Powell says, "or they live in the sticks."

Earlier this month, it was revealed there's a plan taking shape that's "focused on driving sales of Digital comic related content through brick and mortar comic book specialty retailers." Shorr's skeptical: "We'll rant and rave about stuff that's already happened, and we weren't consulted. Every time I asked them, 'Why aren't you consulting us?' they'd say, 'That's not the way things work. ' Well, it certainly doesn't work if you don't do it."

Says Powell, the latest proposal was actually discussed at the last ComicsPRO meeting in Memphis. He insists: It's the future. Which is why he wants Shorr and all the other non-believers to attend. He says: The very future of their business depends on their involvement, even if they're just their to give the publishers endless amounts of grief.

"Some people are afraid if they talk about digital comics in their stores, they'll expose customers to them and lose them," Powell says. "But there's an app for digital comics in every print book people buy. The only comic people who don't know they exist would have to be illiterate."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky